When your Manchester United career looks like a cloudless sky, life can feel very, very sweet. Fraizer Campbell is remembering when it was just so; the halcyon days of 2006 when Sir Alex Ferguson had sent him and three others to develop at United’s partner club in Antwerp.
It is Belgium’s capital of cool, a city to find art, diamonds and architecture of the Flemish baroque, but it is where Campbell learnt to cook and to drive, on the wrong side of the road, and also the place which he and the Carrington boys one day blasted each other and the locals with water, from their cars.
They had bought super soakers and water balloons from the local equivalent of ToysRus, Campbell recalls. “We were just driving down the streets watering people. We got a call from the manager saying, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ We had a car with the team badge on the side!” He grins widely at the memory, even now, after the other members of that United quartet – Jonny Evans, Darron Gibson and Danny Simpson – have found the Premier League prominence which has eluded him.
Royal Antwerp is the club where Ferguson has dispatched a lot of his best prospects and Campbell’s 21 goals in 33 appearances there certainly did enough to suggest the striker United first spotted as a 10-year-old, playing in his hometown of Huddersfield, was a serious piece of property. He has some stories to tell from those United days; of a young Cristiano Ronaldo sending a giddy Simpson tumbling on to his backside in a full-scale training match when a 15th stepover in quick succession all got a bit too much for the right-back. (He’s never let his old mate forget that one.) There were also the encounters with Ferguson, instructing trainees like him to get him a cup of tea in the canteen (“He’d just boss you about and yeah, I did make him one!”) And Ferguson calling them into his office for the big pep talk before their United careers began in earnest. “To scare the living daylights out of us.”
If only the clouds had kept away, Campbell might have been with United this weekend, perhaps preparing to face Norwich City with Wayne Rooney – whom he partnered up front at Newcastle United on the first day of the 2008-09 campaign. Instead, he last month joined a different group of league leaders – the Cardiff City side who stand eight points clear in the Championship and face play-off contenders Middlesbrough today. They love him in Cardiff already – he’s scored five goals in five games since arriving from Sunderland last month – and at 25, Campbell is seeking the stability and sanctuary which escaped him at United, loans spells at Tottenham Hotspur and Hull City, and the Stadium of Light. “I want to be here now and put down some proper roots and look forward,” he says, though after four years of wandering it’s easy to see why he’s learnt to keep the aspirational talk nice and steady.
The first real break from United came soon after that season opener at Old Trafford, the night before which Rooney had approached him at the team hotel to say, “I think it’s me and you tomorrow.” He told him to “shut up” but Ferguson, who at the time had just refused Hull’s request to buy Campbell after his 15 goals on loan had just taken them into the Premier League, took him to one side to confirm it. Yet even as Ferguson handed Campbell his first – and only – United start, he had Tottenham’s Dimitar Berbatov on his mind. Buying the Bulgarian was an obsession – a £30.5m one at that. Campbell went out on loan to White Hart Lane to smooth the deal and never played for United again.
He was sold to Sunderland when the Spurs loan ended and, not fancying the idea of Manchester goodbyes, did not even return to Carrington. Wearside was supposed to be his big move but it was shattered in the moment he sustained a severe anterior cruciate ligament injury against Manchester City in August 2010, with a recurrence of that in April 2011. He finally returned in January last year. That was 17 months without football.
“It was shocking,” Campbell says. “No, it wasn’t the best. And the second time was the worst because I knew what I had been through the first six or seven months. I knew I had all that again but more – because the second time is longer. It was an experience.” It is noticeable that as we speak in a side room at the Grove complex, which Cardiff are sharing with Warren Gatland’s Wales Six Nations squad, Campbell glances down intermittently at the knee in question. “The good old knee,” he says, slapping it. It will often be on a player’s mind after an injury like that and every day he’s working on it. Today, there’s been balance work – “making sure the muscles around the knee are all as strong as they should be so you don’t get injured again”.
His manager, Malky Mackay, has left nothing to chance. He had his staff consult the surgeon who operated on Campbell before signing him – he said there would be no more problems. Mackay also talked to Tony Strudwick, United’s fitness coach, about Campbell, and – of course – Ferguson, who advised him on the 25-year-old’s attitude and personality. (There is a bond between Ferguson and Mackay – whose father, also Malky, played with the United manager at Queen’s Park in the late 1950s.)
There were no doubts for Malky and Campbell was also desperate to be out of Sunderland, where Martin O’Neill had given him one start this season. “The weekend should be exciting but when you are not playing – or are only playing for five or 10 minutes here or there – Saturday is the longest day of the week,” he says of that particular frustration.
He brings a lot of Manchester United to South Wales – the counsel always offered him by Paul McGuiness, United’s Under-18 team manager, for example, though evidently no memories of one of the three senior United games in which he played a part: the 2-0 League Cup defeat to Coventry City in September 2007 which led an infuriated Ferguson to coat his players in public. “I can’t remember,” says Campbell, who played the whole second half. “Definitely can’t remember. I don’t think I was there. Was I? I can’t remember. Maybe it was that bad I just blanked it out...” I’m fairly certain Campbell means this, though he has an excellent line in deadpan.
A few hours around the Cardiff scene on Thursday tell everything about the culture a remarkably refreshed looking Mackay has inculcated. “It’s just the way no one’s getting carried away with things which attracted me,” says Campbell. “Everyone is level-headed, no one’s big time. It wasn’t a case of me dropping down a division, It was just me wanting to play football again. It wasn’t about what we may do in the future that sold it to me but how they had been doing things in the past.”
So it’s back to those new-club routines: that time-honoured tradition of standing on a chair and singing at your first away game – just as he did at a United Christmas party, when he dressed up as David Bellion and tried to sing like him. His Usher routine came in another year.
The roll call of players who don’t make it once they have left Manchester United is long, as Campbell admits, even though he points out that his old squad-mate Gerard Pique, of Barcelona, hasn’t done badly. “He’s been terrible since he has left, hasn’t he?! He has really struggled!”
You sense that he feels this is the lucky break he needs to take Cardiff somewhere and prove United wrong. “I have seen lads at 15 and 16 who looked like world-beaters and yet I couldn’t even tell you where they are now,” he says. “Sometimes as a striker you can play well and have eight shots and they go wide. Then another day somebody just whacks the ball at you and it hits you and goes in and your name is on the score sheet. So it’s partly about luck. But it’s also partly about attitude. You have to have your head screwed on, on and off the pitch. Do things right. Try and make the most of your career and your talent.”
My other life: singing
I ought to be a singer, though my voice lets me down when I need it! My brother, Ashford, above, was in a band called The Risk in The X-Factor. My dad, Keith Campbell, is a good soul/Motown singer, things like that, and my mum, Bernadette Baptiste, is a good singer too. My dad was on one of those Michael Barrymore talent shows a few years ago. As for me? Well, you’ll have to ask the lads! I’m shocking, terrible! I can’t remember what the song was when I did that routine when you stand on a chair before your first away game, the other week. I was confident but my voice just let me down on the night. It was just a bad night for me, I reckon!